The Skeleton Man, the Jersey Devil and a Multitude of Other Attractions

C. A. Bradenbaugh’s Museum, Northwest corner of 9th and Arch Streets, 1890 (Free Library of Philadelphia).

Admission cost a dime at the 9th and Arch Museum. Indeed, dimes ruled the for-profit world of Victorian-era museums.  But in the end neither the entertainment, nor the dimes, were enough.

For more than half a century, the corner of 9th and Arch sustained Philadelphians with opportunities for diversion, education and voyeurism. The public came and went—and so did the owners. First was Colonel Joseph Wood, fresh in town having been burnt out of his Chicago emporium. The Colonel opened the doors on a relatively simple affair: menagerie plus performance space. By 1883, the venue re-launched under the new ownership. Hagar, Campbell & Co. Dime Museum advertised “Entertainment Designed Expressly for Ladies and Children,” and claimed they had the “only great show in town.” It featured everything from “Barnum’s Original Aztecs,” the “Che-Mah Chinese Dwarf,” the “Cannibal Fan Child,” the “Living Skeleton” and “the “White Moor.” Hagar and Campbell piled on the attractions, adding “Dens of Serpents,” “the Merry Monkeys” and Punch and Judy, Johnson’s Original Tennessee Jubilee Singers, and “a multitude of other attractions.”  (.pdf)

Even so, audience demands, and museum costs, proved too high. The Dime Museum soon changed hands again. This time, Charles A. Bradenbaugh re-invented the destination as the “9th and Arch Museum.” And this time, place and the public connected. Bradenbaugh kept the audiences coming from 1885 to 1910.

What would a visitor see behind Bradenbaugh’s colorful façade? “On the first floor,” Joseph Jackson tells us, “there were numerous forms of apparatus for testing grips, lungs, lifting power, etc. “On the second floor were cages of monkeys, a prairie dog ‘Village,’ and a few other menagerie specimens.”  The third floor provided a lecture hall packed with a series of platforms, with living “human freaks.” Regulars came to know “The Skeleton Man,” “The Fat Woman,” the “Real Zulus,” “The Human Bat,” “The Bearded Lady,” “The Elastic-Skin Man,” “The Glass Eater,” and “The Dog-Faced Boy.” Every hour, the gawking public would be invited back down to the main auditorium where they’d sit for a popular play that, no matter the length of the original, was condensed into forty minutes, give or take.

In the 1890s, Bradenbaugh dabbled in movies, allowing his visitors to enjoy that emerging medium. But the Dime Museum’s array of 19th-century offerings remained a complicated and layered activity for the public. The simpler experience of the 20th century movie house required, and got, a venue all its own.

A decade into the new century, Bradenbaugh saw the writing on the wall and sold out. Soon enough, the new owners of the 9th and Arch Museum recognized the same reality and did their best to turn it into an opportunity. In 1911, the museum’s new manager, T.F. Hopkins, and his press agent, Norman Jeffries, engineered (literally) a favorite local legend: the Jersey Devil.

After giving birth to her 12th child, the story goes, “Mother Leeds” declared that the 13th, if she had it, would be the Devil. Lo and behold, one dark and stormy night in 1735, Mrs. Leeds gave birth to her 13th. As promised, it immediately transformed into “a creature with hooves, a horse’s head, bat wings and a forked tail.” The newborn “growled and screamed, then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney. It circled the villages and headed toward the Pines.”

According to Andrea Stulman Dennett in Weird & Wonderful: the Dime Museum in America, the headlines screamed: “The Fabulous Leeds Devil Reappears after an Absence of Fifty Years.” A “monster with long hind legs, short forelegs, a tail, horns on its head and short wings” had reportedly been captured by a farmer in New Jersey “after a terrific struggle” and would soon be “placed on exhibition at the Ninth and Arch Museum.”

“Caught!!!  And Here!!!!  Alive!!! THE LEEDS DEVIL, read Hopkins and Jeffries posters. “Swims! Flys! Gallops! … Exhibited securely chained in a Massive Steel Cage. A LIVING DRAGON more famous than the Fabled Monsters of Mythology. Don’t Miss the Sight of a Lifetime.”

In fact, the museum’s short-lived center of attention was a kangaroo with wings attached. And the audiences this mutant marsupial drew to 9th and Arch kept the doors open for only a few more weeks. The day of the Dime Museum had passed. Frank Dumont soon bought the building for his thriving troupe of minstrels.